By Jenny Neyman
Heather Sinclair and Lily Lewis crouched on the ground in the woods off Funny River Road on Aug. 17, meticulously hunting through a square meter of grass, leaf debris, twigs and other forest detritus for their quarry — brown, dry, round, about the size of a pencil eraser and a bellwether of the Kenai Peninsula boreal forest ecosystem:
More officially, snowshoe hare pellets.
Sinclair and Lewis were volunteering in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge’s annual snowshoe hare pellet count, a somewhat ignoble task, yet one that yields important results. Measuring pellet density produces an estimate of the refuge’s snowshoe hare population. Hares are a lynchpin of the forest, affecting and being affected by several aspects of the Kenai Peninsula’s ecosystem — amount of browse, maturation of the forest and abundance of predators.
“They’re a prey species for a lot of predators in the area, including avian predators. If snowshoe hares are doing well, the predators that prey on them are probably doing well, also,” said Liz Jozwiak, a wildlife biologist with the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.
And so, they count, combing the forest floor for small, brown hare remnants. Sinclair is a University of Alaska Fairbanks student from the central peninsula. She spent the summer working with visitors as a ranger on the refuge and volunteered for the hare pellet count as a way to be involved in the biology side of the organization.
“I just wanted to get experience with another part of refuge,” she said.
Lewis came down from Fairbanks to visit Sinclair, so she volunteered, as well. As a botanist, she usually focuses on plants — and not what eats them — when she’s in the woods.
“I never work with animals in the field, so I wanted to get some experience,” she said. “I’m just here to help, and count poo.” Continue reading